Nuances of Fluency

How about the language? There’s some parts of language learning that I think are like learning to play an instrument. Granted, even when I could only speak English, I spoke more languages than I played instruments, so I’m hardly an expert. But I remember when I was in high school, I had a friend that played the bass guitar. And when I would go to his house, he would play me song after song from his favorites and rant and rave, “Dude, isn’t that bass player amazing? That bass part is awesome, isn’t it?” Though I nodded vigorously and chorused my praises, I never had the heart to tell him that I couldn’t even hear the bass playing! I couldn’t pick apart the sounds of the bass from the other guitars (or pretty much any other instrument with strings). So as a result, I couldn’t appreciate the difference between good and great.  

The main differences between the good and great are subtle, but they include things like speed, comfort, accuracy, and creativity. And that’s a pretty good picture of some of the stages of language learning. Think of some of the people you know that speak English as a second language. What separates them from a native speaker? Probably a couple sounds, a few sentence patterns, a bunch of phrases, and tons of vocabulary. They know how to say “look,” but do they know how to use “observe,” “scrutinize,” “glance,” “scan,” and “gaze”?  

This is where language learning can get really frustrating. After you start to get some satisfaction from being able to carry on conversations, interact on basic levels with others, you pick up a children’s book and feel like an idiot! I’m kind of at an annoying level right now where it seems I can speak slowly and correctly or quickly and wrongly. I often choose the latter – I hate talking slowly and listening to silence while I rummage around in my brain to pull out the right word. Hey, there’s a vivid description! Learning a language is like moving into a new house (smaller than the one you left). Getting the boxes into the house is just part of the job. Then you got to unpack it all and find a place for it.  

So sometimes I don’t know how to express myself correctly. Do I have love for someone, towards someone, or to someone? Do I thank people a lot, big, or very much? Stuff like this is painful. Think of these differences in English (which works very much the same in Chinese): sit up, sit down, sit-in, sit out. Or stand up, stand-down, stand-in, stand-out. Anyway, all this is a long way of saying that I’ve still got a ways to go yet, I still make lots of mistakes, and that though we’re better than ever, it just lets us see how far we still have to go! We’re just starting to understand the differences between good and great.

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